How Outdated Tech in the Supply Chain Threatens Your Safety

Headlines scream about tainted food, drug shortages and untraceable guns. Part of the problem is that inadequate technologies and data silos make it tough to trace problems back to their source.

In September 2006, people started to get sick from spinach contaminated with E. coli bacteria. As more people were hospitalized, investigators narrowed the list of suspects but couldn't pinpoint the source of the contamination. 

Incomplete electronic data, unreliable verbal reports and long trudges through too many paper files hindered progress. The FBI served search warrants. Even the Bioterrorism Act, which was enacted after 9/11 in part to tighten monitoring of the American food supply, didn't work as envisioned.

[Related: See "Tracing Guns Is a Low-Tech, Inefficient Process" at the end of this article] 

A frustrated Food and Drug Administration made a bold move: It advised the public, flat out, to stop eating bagged spinach. The next day, grower Natural Selection Foods launched a recall, followed by several distributors and packagers. The investigation continued into November as officials tried to piece together where and exactly how E. coli got onto the spinach. A final report wouldn't be issued until March 2007.

Ultimately 205 people in 26 states became ill. Two elderly women and a toddler died.

"The information we had wasn't good enough," says Ed Treacy, vice president of supply chain efficiencies at the Produce Marketing Association, a trade group.

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